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Champagne, a love-hate affair with wine’s finest

ISACS is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital (www.enjoygourmet.com.cn) and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via jcolumn@enjoygourmet.com.

Today’s iDEAL feature examines western luxury foods that are now produced in China. In the world of wine the first wine that comes to mind when thinking about luxury is Champagne.

Like most lovers, Champagne and I have had our difficulties. My first qualm is cost. There are too many exorbitant Champagnes that are simply not worth the price.

As a result, my affection for far more reasonably priced and comparable quality CAVA Grand Reserva, Prosecco Superiore and top New World sparklers is increasingly leading me astray.

Secondly, with expanded production the overall quality of Champagne wines has become increasingly inconsistent. This is especially true of many mass-marketed brands that live off of glorious pasts yet fail to deliver their historic excellence.

Despite these problems my love for Champagne may have wavered but has certainly not vanished. There still exist some great Champagnes that are worth every dollar as they offer one of the wine world’s most unique and elegant drinking experiences. The secret is to pick the right style and think small.

Style

Every Champagne producer takes pride in having its own house style. What principally dictates the style of a Champagne is the location of the vineyards, the blend, fermentation, dosage and aging. The majority of Champagnes are blends of the three authorized grapes, namely: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Single variety Chardonnay wines called Blanc de Blancs tend to be lighter and have more finesse as well as single variety Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir wines that tend to be more hearty and structured.

Some producers throw in a minority contribution Pinot Meunier in their Blanc de Noir Champagnes to embellish fruitiness.

Some producers still ferment their wines in oak to bequeath more body, richness and complexity. These include Krug, Bollinger and many smaller producers.

The majority of Champagne houses completely forswear the use of oak in order to emphasize fruit purity in their wines.

These include Moet et Chandon, Veuve Cliquot and many others.

Dosage will also influence the style of your Champagne. In the 19th century most Champagnes were decidedly sweeter with only the English favoring drier wines.

The influence of the British drinkers was profound and gradually the majority of Champagnes became drier and the new term brut appeared.

Today some of my favorite Champagnes are even more drier than brut and we call these zero dosage wines.

These are brilliant wines to pair with raw seafood.

When deciding on a Champagne, one also must choose between a non-vintage or vintage wine.

Non-vintage wines are actually a blend of dozens of wines from different vintages.

The goal of the blending is to create a house style that is recognizable to the consumer year after year. Each year Champagne houses make 30 to 60 separate lots of wines from different villages located in the confines of the Champagne AC. A minimum of 20 percent of the wines must be kept in reserve for future years. These reserve wines play a crucial role in keeping the style of the non-vintage Champagnes consistent from year-to-year.

Vintage Champagnes are made from grapes of one harvest and reflect the characteristics of that particular vintage. The house style may also be apparent in the wine but the style will inevitably vary according to the vintage.

At their best, vintage Champagnes are the finest of wines of the region. Because Champagne is located at the most northern reaches of possible winemaking, vintages truly matter.

Over the past three decades the great vintages are 1988, 1990, 1996, 2002 and, when it’s released, 2015. Very good vintages are 1989, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2012 and 2014.

Selecting the most appropriate styles and best vintages are important, but picking the right producer is most crucial.

Small family-owned

It’s often said that for the most professional and unbiased advice about Champagne, go to Burgundy. Competition and rivalries in Champagne make it hard to get objective advice from those most involved, but the winemakers of Burgundy when not drinking their own acclaimed wines are often found with a glass of Champagne in hand.

Most of my Burgundian winemaking friends avoid big brands and instead pick multi-generation, family-owned producers with superior terrior. In Champagne, this usually means Premier and Grand Cru wines.

One of my favorite producers who has wines in Shanghai is Eric Rodez. For nine generations, this family has been making exceptional yet reasonably priced wines from superior terrior.

Among these are the Abonnay Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Abonnay Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs, Abonnay Grand Cru Rose, Abonnay Grand Cru Cuvee des Crayeres, Abonnay Grand Cru Millesine 2007 and, my personal favorite, the bracingly dry Abonnay Grand Cru Dosage Zero.

Other recommended producers that carefully craft beautiful Champagnes that you can experience in town are Devaux, Jacques Picard, Marie-Courtin and A. Roberts.

The best producers in Champagne are not the most famous, instead they are small to medium sized, mostly family-owned that put their cherished heritage and passion into every bottle.

Cheers Champagne, I still love you.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties: The three authorized varieties for Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Key term: Dosage is the mixture of sugar, wine and occasionally brandy that’s added to Champagne for two reasons, first to induce the second fermentation in the bottle and second to achieve a desired level of sweetness and top off the bottle.


 

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